This Means Noth­ing To Me

(Not just a cheer­ful travelogue- polit­ics and history and the life and death of Stefan Zweig)

I have been in Austria for a week and a half now for teach­ing work. I meant to update last week, but some brutal 7.30 am start times, heavy snow, a lot of plan­ning to do outside the classroom, and a diet of pure stodge in a small town with few dining options (and even fewer options for veget­ari­ans) tired me out. It feels strange to be in small-town Austria, where not much tends to happen, while polit­ic­al turmoil with dire consequences for many vulner­able people goes on around the world.

The UK does not feel like a good place to be right now, but I can’t stay away forever. I will not be back for more than a few days until April at the earli­est anyway. I’m now in Steier­mark, the start of the Alps, and the snow is all gone, and there is rain much the same as an English winter. For my job I get sent to run work­shops in schools in towns few tour­ists visit. Apart from next week in Vienna, I’m criss-cross­ing Austria on the train to vari­ous small towns dotted around. I enjoy lengthy solo train trips in the moun­tains with suit­able music and snacks, but I don’t enjoy lugging a suit­case filled with 5 weeks worth of supplies, even if it does have wheels.

When people picture Austria, they have an image of Vienna, eleg­ant, full of opera houses, art museums and slightly kitschy Mozart souven­irs, and the Alps, full of charm­ing wooden chalets, drifts of powdery snow, and hearty people in leder­hosen (and prob­ably adding an imagin­ary back­ground of moun­tains to Vienna).

The east of Austria (where Vienna is) is actu­ally mostly flat. I’ve been in Vienna overnight two Saturdays in a row now, but was either at a work train­ing event, or leav­ing early the next morn­ing for further travel. I’ll be there for a full week from Sunday anyway and will take full advant­age of my after­noons off to see some exhib­i­tions. I have been to Vienna many times before, and frequently at times of year with better weath­er.

There’s some­thing a little bit low-key seedy about Vienna outside of the grand build­ings on the tour­ist routes (although it is a very safe city). Run-down little shops that seem to have been there forever, rotting art nouveau stations with no staff on the green Ü4 line, decrep­it look­ing branches of Norma and Pennymarkt super­mar­kets with peel­ing beige lino tiles and flick­er­ing neon light­ing that make Lidl look luxuri­ous and which close on the dot at 6pm. Indoor smoking is still legal (and very preval­ent). The Danube is not as cent­ral as you might expect. German TV often picks a Vienna accent for small-time crook char­ac­ters. There’s the Vienna schmäh, the mix of charm­ing manners and snide humour. And the (increas­ingly famil­i­ar) accent, where people mumble yet draw out the vowels at the same time.

Last year I read The World of Yester­day by Stefan Zweig, the memoir by the Austri­an writer who was an inter­na­tion­al star between the wars until his perse­cu­tion by the Nazis (and topic of this weirdly person­al bit of vitri­ol by Michael Hofmann here). He had been neglected until lately in the UK, until the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel (loosely based on sever­al of his stor­ies) caused his books to be reis­sued, and in partic­u­lar The World of Yester­day to be trans­lated by one of my favour­ite trans­lat­ors, the incom­par­able Anthea BellThe World of Yester­day covers his upbring­ing in 1890s Vienna, the shock of the First World War and the rise of Fascism, and ends with his escape to Brazil (and even­tu­al suicide).

Stefan Zweig discusses how in fin-de-siècle Vienna, discus­sion or educa­tion about sex was forbid­den, yet brothels and porn were every­where you went. Boys at his school were barely allowed to speak to girls their own age, yet got them­selves into terrible anxi­et­ies by leav­ing their wallets (with their ID card inside) in brothels and dreaded being black­mailed that the managers would tell their parents. No wonder this was also the era of Freud and Kafka, and psycho­ana­lys­is, As an adult in the 1930s, he’s abso­lutely relieved that aspect of the era is over. No-one cared about sports or foot­ball, teen­agers were obsessed with actors and poets, and poets were like rock stars. As a respect­able secu­lar Jewish family in Vienna, the Zweigs felt comfort­ably accep­ted in soci­ety- these things can change or be changed any minute.

After the Anschluss, and the increas­ing restric­tions on Zweig, the fact that he could prac­tic­ally see Hitler’s house in Bercht­es­gaden from his own house on a moun­tain outside Salzburg only rubbed it in further. His success and inter­na­tion­al respect as a writer could do noth­ing to change it, and he and his wife ended up having to leave Austria for Brazil (via the UK and USA). Being a German-speak­ing writer, whose work was even­tu­ally banned in every coun­try that spoke his language, and an inter­na­tion­al­ist who now could barely visit or commu­nic­ate with any of his writer friends dotted across Europe drove him to despair.

Some­thing that also sticks out in the current polit­ic­al climate of increas­ing nation­al­ism, calls for closed borders and coun­tries turn­ing away Syri­an refugees, is Stefan Zweig’s (and others) utter outrage at the clos­ing of nation­al borders and intro­duc­tion of pass­ports in WWI. Until then all borders were open, and anyone could travel anywhere, and pass­ports and border controls felt like a loss of free­dom and a scary impos­i­tion of control (for the record, I am 100% pro open borders).

“‘People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleas­ure to aston­ish the young by telling them that before 1914 I trav­elled from Europe to India and Amer­ica without a pass­port and without ever having seen one’. The Great War and its after­math increased what Zweig calls ‘a morbid dislike of the foreign­er, or at least fear of the foreign­er…. The humi­li­ations which once had been devised with crim­in­als in mind were now imposed upon the trav­el­ler, before and during every jour­ney. There­after, every­one required offi­cial photo­graphs, certi­fic­ates of health and vaccin­a­tion, letters of recom­mend­a­tion and invit­a­tions, and addresses of relat­ives and friends for ‘moral and finan­cial guar­an­tees’ … His Austri­an pass­port became “void,” as he puts it after the Anschluss, the Nazi annex­a­tion of Austria in 1938. He was forced to ask Brit­ish author­it­ies for an emer­gency white paper, ‘a pass­port for the state­less’. He came to under­stand what an exiled Russi­an acquaint­ance had once told him: ‘Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a pass­port as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being’..” (from this article)

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